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Nobility is asocial classthat possesses more acknowledgedprivilegesor eminencethan most other classes in a society, membership thereof typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be largely honorary (e.g., precedence), and vary from country to country and era to era. Historically, membership of the nobility and the prerogatives thereof have been regulated or acknowledged by the monarch or government, thereby distinguishing it from other sectors of a nation's upper class. Nonetheless, nobilityper sehas rarely constituted a closed caste; acquisition of sufficient power, wealth, military prowess or royal favour has, occasionally or often, enabled commoners to ascend into the nobility.

There is often a variety of ranks within the noble class. Legal recognition of nobility has been more common in monarchies, but nobility also existed in such republics as theDutch Republic(1581–1795), theRepublic of Genoa(1005–1815) and the Republic of Venice(697–1797), and remains part of the legal social structure of some non-hereditary regimes, e.g.,San Marinoand theVatican Cityin Europe. Hereditary titles often distinguish nobles from non-nobles, although in many nations most of the nobility have been un-titled, and a hereditary title need not indicate nobility (e.g.,baronet).

History

The term derives from Latin nobilitas, the abstract noun of the adjective nobilis ("well-known, famous, notable"). In ancient Roman society, nobiles originated as an informal designation for the political governing class who had allied interests, including both patricians and plebeian families (gentes) with an ancestor who had risen to the consulship through his own merit (see novus homo, "new man").

In modern usage, "nobility" is applied to the highest social class in pre-modern societies. In the feudal system (in Europe and elsewhere), the nobility were generally those who held a fief, often land or office, under vassalage, i.e., in exchange for allegiance and various, mainly military, services to a suzerain, who might be a monarch or a higher-ranking nobleman. It rapidly came to be seen as a hereditary caste, sometimes associated with a right to bear a hereditary title and, for example in pre-revolutionary France, enjoying fiscal and other privileges.

While noble status formerly conferred significant privileges in most jurisdictions, by the 21st century it had become a largely honorary dignity in most societies, although a few, residual privileges may still be preserved legally (e.g., Netherlands, Spain, UK) and some Asian, Pacific and African cultures continue to attach considerable significance to formal hereditary rank or titles. (Compare the entrenched position and leadership expectations of the nobility of the Kingdom of Tonga.)

Nobility is a historical, social and often legal notion, differing from high socio-economic status in that the latter is mainly based on income, possessions and/or lifestyle. Being wealthy or influential cannot, ipso facto, make one noble, nor are all nobles wealthy or influential (aristocratic families have lost their fortunes in various ways, and the concept of the 'poor nobleman' is almost as old as nobility itself).

Various republics, including former Iron Curtain countries, Greece, Mexico, and Austria have expressly abolished the conferral and use of titles of nobility for their citizens. This is distinct from countries which have not abolished the right to inherit titles, but which do not grant legal recognition or protection to them, such as Germany and Italy, although Germany recognizes their use as part of the legal surname. Still other countries and authorities allow their use, but forbid attachment of any privilege thereto, e.g., Finland, Norway and the European Union, while French law also protects lawful titles against usurpation.

Although many societies have a privileged upper class with substantial wealth and power, the status is not necessarily hereditary and does not entail a distinct legal status, nor differentiated forms of address.

Noble privileges

Not all of the benefits of nobility derived from noble status per se. Usually privileges were granted or recognized by the monarch in association with possession of a specific title, office or estate. Most nobles' wealth derived from one or more estates, large or small, that might include fields, pasture, orchards, timberland, hunting grounds, streams, etc. It also included infrastructure such as castle, well and mill to which local peasants were allowed some access, although often at a price. Nobles were expected to live "nobly", that is, from the proceeds of these possessions. Work involving manual labor or subordination to those of lower rank (with specific exceptions, such as in military service) was either forbidden (as derogation from noble status) or frowned upon socially. On the other hand, membership in the nobility was usually a prerequisite for holding offices of trust in the realm and for career promotion, especially in the military, at court and often the higher functions in the government and judiciary.

Prior to the French Revolution, European nobles typically commanded tribute in the form of entitlement to cash rents or usage taxes, labor and/or a portion of the annual crop yield from commoners or nobles of lower rank who lived or worked on the noble's manor or within his seigniorial domain. In some countries, the local lord could impose restrictions on such a commoner's movements, religion or legal undertakings. Nobles exclusively enjoyed the privilege of hunting. In France, nobles were exempt from paying the taille, the major direct tax. Peasants were not only bound to the nobility by dues and services, but the exercise of their rights were often also subject to the jurisdiction of courts and police from whose authority the actions of nobles were entirely or partially exempt. In some parts of Europe the right of private war long remained the privilege of every noble.

During the early Renaissance, dueling established the status of a respectable gentleman, and was an accepted manner of resolving disputes. According to Ariel Roth, during the reign of Henry IV, over 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels "in an eighteen-year period" whilst a twenty-year period of Louis XIII's reign saw some eight thousand pardons for "murders associated with duels".

Since the end of World War I the hereditary nobility entitled to special rights has largely been abolished in the Western World as intrinsically discriminatory, and discredited as inferior in efficiency to individual meritocracy in the allocation of societal resources. Nobility came to be associated with social rather than legal privilege, expressed in a general expectation of deference from those of lower rank. By the 21st century even that deference had become increasingly minimized.

Ennoblement

In France, a seigneury (lordship) might include one or more manors surrounded by land and villages subject to a noble's prerogatives and disposition. Seigneuries could be bought, sold or mortgaged. If erected by the crown into, e.g., a barony or countship, it became legally entailed for a specific family, which could use it as their title. Yet most French nobles were untitled ("seigneur of Montagne" simply meant ownership of that lordship but not, if one was not otherwise noble, the right to use a title of nobility, as commoners often purchased lordships). Only a member of the nobility who owned a countship was allowed, ipso facto, to style himself as its comte, although this restriction came to be increasingly ignored as the ancient régime drew to its close.

In other parts of Europe, sovereign rulers arrogated to themselves the exclusive prerogative to act as fons honorum within their realms. For example, in the United Kingdom royal letters patent are necessary to obtain a title of the peerage, which also carries nobility and formerly a seat in the House of Lords, but never came with automatic entail of land nor rights to the local peasants' output.

European nobility

kingdom of italyEuropean nobility originated in the feudal / seigniorial system that arose in Europe during the Middle Ages. Originally, knights or nobles were mounted warriors who swore allegiance to their sovereign and promised to fight for him in exchange for an allocation of land (usually together with serfs living thereon). During the period known as the Military Revolution, nobles gradually lost their role in raising and commanding private armies, as many nations created cohesive national armies.

This was coupled with a loss of the socio-economic power of the nobility, owing to the economic changes of the Renaissance and the growing economic importance of the merchant classes, which increased still further during the Industrial Revolution. In countries where the nobility was the dominant class, the bourgeoisie gradually grew in power; a rich city merchant came to be more influential than a nobleman, and the latter sometimes sought inter-marriage with families of the former to maintain their noble lifestyles.

However, in many countries at this time, the nobility retained substantial political importance and social influence: for instance, the United Kingdom's government was dominated by the nobility until the middle of the 19th century. Thereafter the powers of the nobility were progressively reduced by legislation. However, until 1999, all hereditary peers were entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords. Since then, a reduction has been undertaken, whereby 92 sit, with 90 being elected by other hereditary peers to represent the peerage.

The countries with the highest proportion of nobles were Castile (probably 10%), Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (15% of an 18th-century population of 800,000), Spain (722,000 in 1768 which was 7–8% of the entire population) and other countries with lower percentages, such as Russia in 1760 with 500,000–600,000 nobles (2–3% of the entire population), and pre-revolutionary France where there were no more than 300,000 prior to 1789, which was 1% of the population (although some scholars believe this figure is an over-estimate). In 1718 Sweden had between ten and fifteen thousand nobles, which was 0.5% of the population. In Germany 0.01%.

In the Kingdom of Hungary nobles made up five percent of the population.[6] All the nobles in 18th-century Europe numbered perhaps 3–4 million out of a total of 170–190 million inhabitants.

Rank within the nobility

Nobility might be either inherited or conferred by a fons honorum. It is usually an acknowledged preeminence that is hereditary, i.e., the status descends exclusively to some or all of the legitimate, and usually male-line, descendants of a nobleman. In this respect, the nobility as a class has always been much more extensive than the primogeniture-based titled nobility, which included peerages in France and in the United Kingdom, grandezas in Portugal and Spain, and some noble titles in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Prussia and Scandinavia. In Russia and non-Prussian Germany, titles usually descended to all male-line descendants of the original titleholder, including females. In Spain, noble titles are now equally heritable by females and males. Noble estates, on the other hand, gradually came to descend by primogeniture in much of western Europe aside from Germany. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, with the exception of a few Hungarian estates, they usually descended to all sons or even all children.

In France, some wealthy bourgeois, most particularly the members of the various parliaments, were ennobled by the king, constituting the noblesse de robe. The old nobility of landed or knightly origin, the noblesse d'épée, increasingly resented the influence and pretensions of this parvenu nobility. In the last years of the ancient régime the old nobility pushed for restrictions of certain offices and orders of chivalry to noblemen who could demonstrate that their lineage had extended "quartering", i.e., several generations of matrilineal noble ancestry, to be eligible for offices and favors at court along with nobles of medieval descent, (although historians such as William Doyle have disputed this so-called "Aristocratic Reaction"). Various court and military positions were reserved by tradition for nobles who could "prove" an ancestry of at least seize quarters (16 quartering), indicating exclusively noble descent (as displayed, ideally, in the family's coat of arms) extending back five generations (all 16 great-great grandparents).

This illustrates the traditional link in many countries between heraldry and nobility; in those countries where heraldry is used, nobles have almost always been armigerous, and have used heraldry to demonstrate their ancestry and family history. However, it is important to note that heraldry has never been restricted to the noble classes in most countries, and being armigerous does not necessarily demonstrate nobility. Scotland, however, is an exception. In a number of recent cases in Scotland the Lord Lyon Kings of Arms have controversially (vis-a-vis Scotland's Gaelic law) granted the arms and allocated the chief ships of medieval noble families to female-line descendants of lords, even when they were not of noble lineage in the male line, while persons of legitimate male-line descent may still survive (e.g., the modern Chiefs of Clan MacLeod).

In some nations, hereditary titles, as distinct from noble rank, were not always recognized in law, e.g., Poland's Szlachta. Most nations traditionally had an untitled lower nobility in addition to titled nobles. Examples include the landed gentry of the British Isles. Unlike England's gentry, the Junkers of Germany, the noblesse de robe of France, the hidalgos of Spain and the nobility of Italy were explicitly acknowledged by the monarchs of those countries as members of the nobility, although untitled. In Scandinavia, the Benelux nations and Spain there are still untitled as well as titled families recognized by law as noble.

In Hungary members of the nobility always theoretically enjoyed the same rights. In practice, however, a noble family's financial assets largely defined its significance. Medieval Hungary's concept of nobility originated in the notion that nobles were "free men", eligible to own land. This basic standard explains why the noble population was relatively large, although in fact the economic status of its members varied widely. Untitled nobles were not infrequently wealthier than titled families, while considerable differences in wealth were also to be found within the titled nobility (the custom of granting titles was introduced to Hungary in the 16th century by the House of Habsburg). Historically, once nobility was granted, if a nobleman served the monarch properly he might obtain the title of baron, and later could also be elevated to the rank of count. As in other countries of post-medieval central Europe, hereditary titles were not attached to a particular land or estate but to the noble family itself, so that all matrilineal descendants shared a title of baron or count (cf., peerage). Neither nobility nor titles could be transmitted through women.

Some con artists sell fake titles of nobility, often with impressive-looking documentation. These may be illegal, depending on local law. They are more often illegal in countries that actually have nobilities, such as European monarchies. In the United States, such commerce may constitute actionable fraud rather than criminal usurpation of an exclusive right to use of any given title by an established class.

 

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